May 11, 2006

Matt Damon’s Lessons From Africa

Posted in Africa at 1:35 am by greatparanoiac

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I found an e-mail on Matt Damon in my Bulk folder. Taking time away from shooting the next Bourne sequel, Matt Damon has joined his friends George, Brad, Angelina, Bono and Oprah in Africa. This appeal comes from the One Campaign, which works to end poverty in developing countries and fight the spread of AIDS.

I use to think celebrities rallying behind humanitarian causes was a bit heavy-handed and self-serving because it fetishized other cultures by focusing more on the unique and exotic and not bad governance. Poor Africa–they need Ocean’s Twelve to solve their problems. I also thought if celebrities cared about a cause, why not start with domestic efforts first and push for a change in social policies.

It ‘s strange to see Sean Penn on a speedboat in the flooded New Orlean streets rescuing trapped families with photographer and flak in tow. Or Bono at the World Economic Forum asking for debt elimination in Africa behind a pair of $500 Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. I wonder how much malaria meds those glasses can fetch?

I should develop this further–some civil society theorists have argued that the proliferation of NGOs and external assistance/attention for humanitarian efforts hurts the local population because it lets the government off the hook–when its their responsibilty to make a country economically viable. Of course, what do you do when you have an authoritarian regime or dictator who exploits his country’s resources or sees it as his personal fiefdom?

I’ve mellowed out considerably and now direct my anger toward government officials and a stagnant international community who talk a good talk about helping Africa. If Angelina wants to take it upon herself to travel in a region with minimal infrastructure, draw public attention to an ongoing civil war, and pick up a cute baby for herself–good for her.

People in a position of power maybe aren’t listening or don’t care about what she has to say-but the public should listen. We need to know that half the world doesn’t have the $2-3/day to support their famlies or raise healthy children–and how this affects us as well.

Funny thing about local human rights activists– a lot of what we do feels like preaching to the converted. After a while, it is the same group of people coming to the meetings and rallies.  I did tabling for Amnesty at a U2 concert in a major metro city. Out of 22,000 people that walked past me and four other volunteers, we collected 275 signatures for petitions. Yikes! So much for Saving Darfur or Denouncing Torture. But that’s okay, I knew Bono was going to stop midconcert and talk about human rights for 10 minutes. And later that night, Oprah was on tv talking about AIDS & Africa for a whole hour. Thank you celebs. 

Here’s an excerpt of what our boy Matt saw and did in Africa:

“The second day of the trip, I met children at an orphan care center in Zambia who had HIV\AIDS. Most of them couldn’t remember their parents because they died of AIDS when they were only babies. Frederick, an HIV positive father showed me something called a “Memory Book.” A scrapbook with pictures and stories about him he was putting together for his son so he would have something to remember him with after they he was gone. About 650,000 children in Zambia are AIDS orphans. They play “Duck, Duck, Goose” and “London Bridge” just like kids around the world, but without help; the problems they face are only going to get much worse. We can’t let Congress cut funding that provides critical assistance to kids like these all across Africa.”

You can ask your Senators to support development assistance  through the One website. Also–check out Newsweek’s latest edition. It has a 25-year retrospective on the AIDS pandemic and the challenges faced by African-Americans. Another story of interest in the issue is a young survivor of the Rwandan genocide who was raped and is now coping with AIDS.

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